Connecting Kids to Nature in a Disconnected World

The Natural Leaders Network is part of a budding outdoor equity movement

By Shawnté Salabert

April 27, 2019

CJ Goulding smiles and looks off to the side

CJ Goulding, program manager for the Natural Leaders Network. | Photo by Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

If CJ Goulding had his way, this sentence would be his only appearance in this story. Goulding, a program manager for the Natural Leaders Network, would much rather talk about the young leaders he works with to advance the outdoor equity movement: people such as Ron Griswell, who created a program that expands adventure recreation options at historically black colleges and universities; Yesica Chavez, a youth ambassador advocating the importance of spending time outside; and Evan O'Donnell, a teacher who shares the wonders of nature with grade-school kids in Mississippi.

"There are 350 of us, and if I could have all 350 stand with me to tell this story, I would," he explains, "because it gives the full picture of what it means to be a part of the network, what it means to care for the outdoors."

Natural Leaders is an initiative of the Children & Nature Network, a nonprofit organization founded in 2006 to reconnect kids to nature in an increasingly disconnected world. Each leader nurtures that connection in their own way by increasing outdoor access in their home communities.

To join the network, participants must first attend Legacy Camp, a regional multiday training that introduces the basic tenets of outdoor leadership and community organizing. Between breakout sessions and team-building activities, attendees develop a plan of action for making an impact back home–by volunteering with a local nonprofit, for example, or lobbying their representatives for increased green space.

At Legacy Camp, participants also learn how to leverage their own stories to promote the idea that access to the outdoors is crucial for everyone. One leader who knows this well is Chavez. When she was a teenager, her family planned a camping trip to Nebraska's Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area. Upon arriving, she and her parents, Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrants, were told by a white man in an RV that they "didn't belong." Her family decided to switch campsites.

The experience left a bad taste, but Chavez wasn't deterred. During her junior year of high school, she joined Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK), an organization that uses science-based outdoor activities to teach leadership skills. Chavez used the negative memory of that day at the lake as motivation. "This was my experience, but I don't want it to be the experience for future generations."

Now a full-time college student, Chavez leads some of the very same programs she participated in as a teenager. She coordinates hiking, fishing, and camping trips for ELK students and their families and serves as a translator, ensuring that language isn't another barrier to access.

Nadia Córdoba, another leader, moved to Colorado from Argentina at age 13 but didn't start enjoying the state's legendary recreation opportunities until she was in her 20s. After she went through some rough patches at work and in a relationship, she decided to shake things up: She attended an introductory rock-climbing class with adventure-based nonprofit UpaDowna.

The experience was somewhat terrifying–Córdoba is afraid of heights–but support and encouragement from the organization's volunteer leaders inspired her to sign up for more. She soon realized that while the activities were fun, they were also helping to improve her mental health.

"I have really, really hard times when I need to go into nature so I can cry it out, laugh it out, or just literally let the water from a river wash over me," Córdoba says. "I have personally felt that healing from nature, and I want everybody to feel those same things."

Córdoba began volunteering with UpaDowna. In addition to introducing people to camping and standup paddleboarding, she also helps write grants, develop new programs, coordinate speaker series, and plan fundraising events.

Like every member of the Natural Leaders Network, Goulding has his own story of transformation. He is a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Jamaica to New Jersey in the mid-1980s. Goulding and his brother were "free-roam kids" who spent all day playing outside, often walking through the woods to their grandmother's house nearby to help tend her garden.

His first experience with a different version of "outdoors" came via a college internship that included a weeklong orientation in Grand Teton National Park, where he marveled at elk and went snowshoeing for the first time. The trip was brief but powerful. At the time, Goulding was struggling in school and questioning his future. Inspired by a conversation he had with one of the program's organizers, he applied for and got a job the next summer guiding backpacking trips for the North Cascades Institute. Afterward, Goulding's supervisor sent him information about Legacy Camp; he attended the following year.

Much like Goulding's week in the Tetons, the experience proved transformative. "I could feel and see the changes that were happening in me personally because people were using the framework of the outdoors to invest in me," he says.

Armed with a fresh purpose, Goulding eventually found his way into a full-time job with the Natural Leaders Network, where he now supports people like Chavez and Córdoba.

"Constellations aren't built just off the strength of the brightest star," Goulding says. "Constellations are groups of stars that come together for a bigger purpose."

This article appeared in the May/June 2019 edition with the headline "Natural Born Leaders."